Tower Hamlets Council banned the The Big Ride for Palestine from using its property for the end event to its ride on 27 July. A ride aimed at raising money for sports for girls and young women traumatised by attacks on Gaza as well as raising awareness about Palestine.
When the Government promoted adoption of the IHRA definition of Antisemitism we warned that not only was the definition poorly worded but that public bodies might make it even worse by going beyond its strict terms. Tower Hamlets have demonstrated that our concerns were fully justified and the IHRA definition is a threat to the free speech Britain prides itself on.
We warned that Councils would ignore the mildly limiting caveats in the definition that: ‘the following examples may serve as illustrations’; ‘manifestations might include’; ‘could, taking into account the overall context, include’. We feared that they would adopt a simple matching approach: matching a phrase, often taken out of context, to one of the eleven tendentious examples.
Indeed, the lobby groups We Believe in Israel and Local Government Friends of Israel promoted a version that omitted all these calls to context. This doctored version was circulated to all London councils by their coordinating body. Following pressure from Free Speech on Israel the body withdrew the illicit version but not until it had had wide circulation among council officers and members.
We had sought a legal opinion from a leading QC when adoption was mooted. He pointed out that, even interpreted narrowly, the definition conflicted with the rights of free expression guaranteed by the European Charter of Human Rights and the UK Human Rights Act. Further the document was so poorly worded that it could not, in any circumstances, be relied on to inform the actions of a public body. Any use would lay a Coiuncil open to legal challenge.
Despite this Tower Hamlets Council denied the ride access to its park. They did not give a reason but documents reluctantly released following a Freedom of Information application told the story. Council officers took exception to a reference to ‘Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians’ and one to ‘Israeli Apartheid’ on the Big Ride website. Each of these are legitimate political judgements and in no way constitute antisemitism. The correspondence clearly indicates that the officers made their decision in the light of their false interpretation of the IHRA document. However, they were anxious enough about the sensitivity of their action to decide to cover up their reasoning so The Big Ride were unable to contest their exclusion.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign and The Big Ride have written to The Mayor of Tower Hamlets informing him of the oppressive actions of his officers and asking to meet him to add to the Tower Hamlets resolution adopting the IHRA definition the following caveats to guarantee free speech in the borough.
It is not antisemitic, unless there is additional evidence to suggest anti-Jewish prejudice, to:
criticise the Government of Israel;
criticise Zionism as a political ideology;
describe any policy or law or practices of the state of Israel as racist, including acts leading to Palestinian dispossession as part of the establishment of the state;
describe Israel as an apartheid state;
advocate boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel
The Guardian carried a report of these events on 3 August 2019